Just call it a “Gold” rush.
If you’re a regular Christian radio listener, then you probably know who Britt Nicole is. The 27-year-old singer has been at it for a few years now, but 2013 looks to be a big year for her as her single “Gold” crosses over from the world of Christian into the more Contemporary music scene, a rarity for many acts. In fact, Nicole is only the fourth solo female since the 1980’s to pull off the trick successfully. Christian music has often been very polarizing for the mainstream teen audience; programmers fear that anything too religious-based will turn away the urban crowd and/or who is just turned off by the background of the act. I’ve been guilty of it myself. However, some of those acts just manage to breakthrough with a non-offensive, harmless and uplifting tune or two. If you’re curious about the history of the process, well, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Amy Grant had been releasing albums since 1977, but in 1985, A&M Records took over partial promotion of her album, Unguarded, and single “Find A Way” hit the mainstream top 30. By 1986, she was on a top-selling duet with Peter Cetera, “The Next Time I Fall”. For years, Grant built up a following at adult contemporary radio, but nothing hit big nationally. Despite one other top-40 hit by the band Stryper in 1987, that was all for Christian crossovers, until Grant struck again with her 1991 release, the pop-oriented Heart In Motion. Lead single “Baby Baby” made a huge splash and spent three weeks at #1 on the radio and two on the Hot 100. Grant became the first Christian music artist to hit the top spot, and would make the top ten with follow-up singles like “Every Heartbeat”. In fact, at CHR radio, five consecutive singles made the top ten, a feat yet to be matched by any Christian artist. 1994’s House Of Love and 1997’s Behind The Eyes also produced big AC hits and more minor CHR entries, but her success eventually waned at both formats.
Amy Grant‘s sudden and spectacular mainstream story encouraged many a Christian singer to try their luck at popular radio to positive results. First was Michael W. Smith, who had been making the Christian charts since 1983. His first wide release from Go West Young Man, “Place In This World”, was co-written by Grant. It went top ten in the summer of 1991. In 1992, Kathy Troccoli scored her only mainstream hit, “Everything Changes”, a top 5 at CHR radio and top 20 on the Hot 100. Songs by DC Talk and Jars Of Clay also placed in the top 20 at the format in 1996. By the late 1990’s, most of these acts were back to just releasing to Christian radio as boy bands and bubblegum music took over mainstream radio.
With teen singers on the rise, Virgin Records took a chance on then 17-year-old Stacie Orrico, handling the pop promotion for her second, self-titled effort. Two big singles hit, “Stuck” and “(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life”, which went top ten at mainstream radio. Further reigniting a Christian music movement was MercyMe and their single, “I Can Only Imagine”. Originally issued in 2001, it went to #1 on the Christian AC chart. The song was remixed and rereleased to mainstream radio in reaction to the Columbia disaster, where a seven-person crew on the shuttle were killed as it disintegrated back to Earth on February 1, 2003. The song’s impact began slowly, then built an audience through airplay in primarily southern markets. Hitting the CHR top 50 in late May, it peaked in mid-August at #29 and spent a huge 20 weeks on the chart. The band would have several other AC hits, where “Imagine” made the top 5, but nothing made it onto the CHR airwaves.
After the success of those two acts, other Christian artists began to push their releases to mainstream radio to mixed results. Bands like Flyleaf, Relient K and Switchfoot managed to gel with the sound of the format, the latter act scoring two top ten hits in 2004. Plumb broke the AC format with 2007’s top ten single, “In My Arms”. Acts like Rush Of Fools, Steven Curtis Chapman and former DC Talk member tobyMac, however, saw very limited AC and Hot AC airplay with no big singles. Just as a decade before, the run of crossover singles managed to last a good few years before the genre was overshadowed by dance and electro-pop music and left the mainstream genre.
Flash forward to 2013 and Britt Nicole has made it into the CHR top 40 with “Gold”, the first Christian act to break at this specific radio format since 2008. Nicole released her first album, Say It, in 2007, followed by The Lost Get Found in 2009. Both albums launched hit singles, notably her second effort, which saw both the title track and a follow-up single, “Walk On The Water”, hit #1 on the Christian CHR chart. Last year, she released Gold, which included another high charting hit, “All This Time”. It was then announced that Capitol Records would be taking over the crossover promotion of the album and the rerelease of it, coming on February 26. The title track, remixed very slightly, was made available for airplay in December. It’s mainly been added to stations in smaller radio markets, thus, it has a low audience, but it’s still accumulated several hundred new spins during the past few weeks. The song itself isn’t even remotely religious; just a feel good anthem about feeling beautiful and confident being your unique self (“Whatever you’ve been told/you’re worth more than gold”) up against a bouncy guitar line and some drums. The video reflects the same message as five teased children (a “vampire girl”, a homosexual guy, an anorexic teen, a rebel skater chick and a short basketball player) are transported into a “dream world” where everyone is accepted regardless of what they look like and have a big house party. Plus, who doesn’t love a young girl carrying around a bunch of balloons? It won’t ruffle any feathers; rather, I would hope it inspires a lot of radio listeners that are bullied or pressured by other to conform to a certain way. It’s pretty relatable. At the same time, Nicole faces an uphill battle. Will people think of her differently coming from a Christian background or will she just be accepted with her catchy song of hers? It’s only #226 on iTunes, though that’s much higher than other songs getting airplay on that format. Time will tell, I suppose, but she’s off to a good start, and the song is, at least in my opinion, worthy of being the big hit that everyone jams along to.
So, if Britt Nicole makes the top twenty or so at CHR radio, could this be the start of a new era of Christian crossovers? Will acts like Colton Dixon, Hawk Nelson or Meredith Andrews be next to take the prize? How long could Nicole keep pumping out singles to the format if she eventually sees some big numbers? Stay tuned. This could be a holy handover.